A Matter of Life and Death

“Daring to act means death
daring not to act means life
of these two
one benefits
the other harms
what Heaven dislikes
who knows the reason
the Way of Heaven
is to win without a fight
to answer without a word
to come without a summons
and to plan without a thought
the Net of Heaven is all-embracing
its mesh is wide but nothing escapes”

(Taoteching, verse 73, translation by Red Pine)

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Everyone knows about daring to act but not about daring not to act. Those who dare to act walk on the edge of a knife. Those who dare not to act walk down the middle of a path. Of these two, walking on a knife-edge is harmful, but people ignore the harm. Walking down the middle of a path is beneficial, but people are not aware of the benefit. Thus, it is said, ‘People can walk on the edge of a knife but not down the middle of a path” (Chungyung: 9).

SU CH’E says, “Those who dare to act die. Those who dare not to act live. This is the normal pattern of things. But sometimes those who act live, and sometimes those who don’t act die. Waht happens in the world depends on fortune. Sometimes what should happen doesn’t. The Way of Heaven is far off. Who knows where its likes and dislikes come from?”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The mechanisms whereby some live and others die is obscure and hard to fathm. If sages find it difficult to know, what about ordinary people?”

YEN TSUN says, “Heaven does not consider life in its schemes or death in its work. It is impartial.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Loosely viewed, the hard and the strong conquer the soft and the weak. Correctly viewed, the soft and the weak conquer the ahrd and the strong. Hence, the hard and the strong are what Heaven dislikes.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Because sages do not kill others lightly, evildoers slip through their nets, but not through the Net of Heaven. Heaven does not use its strength to fight against evildoers as Humanity does, and yet it always triumphs. It does not speak with a mouth as Humanity does, and yet it answers faster than an echo. It does not have to be summoned but arrives on its own. Evil has its evil reward. Even the clever cannot escape. Heaven is unconcerned and unmindful, but its retribution is ingenious and beyond the reach of human plans. It never lets evildoers slip through its net. Sages do not have to kill evildoers. Heaven will do it for them.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “Yin and yang take turns. The four seasons come and go. The moon waxes and wanes. All things have their time. They don’t have to be summoned to come.”

LI HUNG-FU says, “It wins because it doesn’t fight. It answers because it doesn’t speak. It comes because it isn’t summoned. If it had to fight to win, something would escape, even if its mesh were fine.”

Today’s verse is a continuation of the theme Lao-tzu has been talking about since verse 70. And he states it again in lines six and seven of today’s verse: “What heaven dislikes / who knows the reason?” The Tao isn’t something we can understand. Best then, to just go with the flow. That was putting it rather mildly. Actually, as Lao-tzu says in today’s verse, it is a matter of life and death.

Because we don’t know what we think we know, we dare to act when we shouldn’t dare to act, and this is something Lao-tzu has been talking about for even longer. Back in verse 64, Lao-tzu said, “To act is to fail / to control is to lose / sages therefore don’t act / thus they don’t fail / they don’t control / thus they don’t lose.”

We think it is going to be easy. That is why we act, we intervene, we interfere, we try to control. And we force things, when what we thought would be easy, turns out to be hard. Instead of going with the flow and bringing ease to our life, we suffer hardship, hastening our own death.

The choice is so clear! Yet, we don’t see it. Being blinded by ambition, caught in desires, we don’t see until it’s too late. That is why Lao-tzu said, in verse 64, the time to act is before anything exists. After that, don’t dare to act!

The affliction goes from the top down to the masses of people. And it is easy to think the solution is to get the right people at the top. But, Lao-tzu warns us, again and again, this isn’t the Way. The solution comes from below not above, from behind not in front. How does the sea master a hundred rivers? By being lower than them.

We can’t know the Way of Heaven! All we can do is go with its flow. It wins without a fight, it answers without speaking a word. It comes without being summoned. It plans without a thought. The Net of Heaven is all-embracing. Yet, its mesh is so wide, we dare to think we can escape.

But there is no escape!

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